Friends, Faith and Humanism

Don Cupitt's review of David Boulton's The Faith of a Quaker Humanist first appeared in the summer issue of the SoF UK magazine.

A shrewd pupil, considering my ideas, once said to me during a supervision: "I see what's wrong with you. You're a protestant-squared". He meant that, pressing on from Kierkegaard's ideas, I'd turned the protestant principle around and back upon itself, to produce a sort of protestant critique of protestantism. Result? Hyperbolic protestantism, which regards all dogma, all objectivity, and all desire for certainty as idolatrous. "Protestantism purified into scepticism", he said, sniffily—and he himself has since gone very Catholic.

Maybe he was right. Anyway, if I am a protestant-squared, then the Quaker Universalist Group, founded some fifteen years ago by John Linton, are Quakers-squared, Quaker-Quakers. The Quaker principle puts the spirit above the letter, and the authority of conscience above every "objective" external authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil. Quaker worship is almost unique in being worship that does not visibly manifest and confirm some traditionally-accredited power-structure or hierarchy that claims the authority to pronounce upon questions of religious truth and value. Quaker worship is worship without any display of clerical power.

Now, if we apply the Quaker principle to Quakerism itself, we may ask: Why should the Society of Friends have to see itself as exclusively bound to and limited by the Christian tradition and Christian vocabulary? Perhaps the very notion of an historically-conditioned and exclusive religious identity is itself narrow and unspiritual. Why shouldn't there be a fully universal Quakerism? Why not, for example, Quaker Jews, Quaker Buddhists and even Quaker Humanists? So Quaker Universalism is Quakerism gone global and multifaith, spiritualized into non-realism.

All this is very intriguing. An old tradition associated especially with Joachim of Fiore divides human history into three great epochs, each presided over by one of the Persons of the Trinity. The age of the Father is the Old Testament period, during which humankind lives under the Law. The age of the Son is the period of the Church, during which humankind lives by the means of grace that are dispensed by the clergy and the Visible Church. And in the age of the Spirit, soon to begin, humankind will live in a global state of pure spiritual freedom. The only religious leadership will be that of Spirit-filled contemplative religious persons. This expectation of a post-ecclesiastical Age of the Spirit was strong in the later Middle Ages and greatly influenced, not only the rise of the Society of Friends and other radical Christian groups, but also (and especially) the early settlements in America, "the New World". And today, with the second Christian millennium ending and institutional, dogmatic religion everywhere in rapid decline, it is not surprising that similar ideas are appearing amongst us.

All this brings out the close affinity between the Quaker Universalists and Sea of Faith. Lecturing to the Universalists' Conference this spring, I was amused to find that at least one fifth of those present were members of both groups. As for the Pamphlets, of which this one by David Boulton is the latest, their very titles show how Soffy they are. How about Jean Hardy's There is Another World but it is This One (No. 12)? You can't get more Soffy than that. I'm sending for my copy straight away.

David Boulton's title is slightly provocative. Like Anthony Freeman, whom he echoes, he wants to rescue the words "faith" and "humanism" from those religious conservatives who see faith as willed assent to dogma upon authority, and who see "Humanism" as true religion's demonic Other. Such conservatives often declare that "Humanism puts Man on the throne of the Universe" or that "Humanism puts Man in the place of God". They regard humanists as people who worship a false god, and they equate true religion with ascribing all value to God and none to humanity—an anti-humanism that might be intelligible in Muslims, but which is surely very odd coming from Christians.

Explaining himself, David Boulton starts by arguing that to live by faith is to live committed to certain values and hopes, but without any objective guarantee that your values will prevail and your hopes will be fulfilled. On this account, faith is disinterested commitment. By faith, we cleave to our values, we project out our hopes and ideals, irrespective of whether there is or is not any posthumous pay-off or pie in the sky. Faith that expects to be rewarded is not real faith, but merely an investment. Going on to explain his understanding of Quakerism, David Boulton especially stresses the proto-Kantian aspect of Quaker teaching. In its plainness, its emphasis on the primacy of conscience and its talk of Inner Light, Quakerism opened the way for later ideas of individual moral autonomy and individual human rights. Furthermore, the way the early Quakers internalized God within each human being anticipates later democratic theory: sovereignty is not concentrated in a great Superperson exalted above society, but is dispersed throughout society.

And when God is radically internalized within each person, God-centredness and Man-centredness are no longer opposed principles. They coincide. God and the human being have become concentric. God's sovereign free self-affirmation is the same thing as our own imaginative positing-of and free commitment to our moral and religious values; and our worship of God is simultaneously introspection. We wait upon, and we find worth in, the values—the mercy, pity, peace and love—that we are committed to, and that we have fallen short of. Repenting before God is the same thing as reproaching ourselves. Once again, Quaker humanism and "Christian non-realism" have succeeded in overcoming the orthodox opposition between God and Man. There is no longer any antithesis between theism and humanism.

When I first published Taking Leave of God in 1980, there was a storm of criticism. The book was attacked by the Church Times as "atheistic" within days, and by the Archbishop of Canterbury within a fortnight. That settled it: the entire ecclesiastical and academic establishment had now been told what to think, and they duly thought it. The book was "unsound"; it was not to be noticed or understood.

There were only two exceptions to this sheeplike conformity: John Robinson and a number of people who had been his fellow-travellers in the sixties gave me encouragement, and the book was immediately and warmly welcomed by many Quakers. Cambridge gossip had it that I'd become a Buddhist, but Quakers assured me that I'd been a Quaker for years.

David Boulton's pamphlet makes the affinity between Quakerism and Sea of Faith very clear. There are two points on which we could do with more. First, there is room for a book about early Quaker ideas of God. Gerrard Winstanley and George Fox are already well-known, but David Boulton's quotations from Joseph Salmon and Jacob Bauthumley are very striking and tantalising, and one would like to know more about them. And, secondly, we need to spell out further what it is to live by the imagination. David Boulton (in my view, rightly) rejects semi-realist ideas about the spirit, the spiritual dimension, spirituality and the like. Many liberal religious people have given up crude supernaturalism, but cling on to the idea of an attenuated, gaseous spiritual realm alongside our common public world. Such people are still clinging to a reduced version of the old contrast between the visible and invisible worlds of Earth and Heaven. We should give up that idea.

We should see "being religious" simply as a way of living by the creative imagination. We should not be apologetic "projectionists" or "fictionalists". We should be entirely happy about it. So, in his best single sentence, David Boulton writes: "If God is no more (but, gloriously, no less) than a projection of our highest and deepest values, and if these must be human values (because no other form of life has created and articulated them), God-centredness just becomes one way, a religious way, of talking about being human".

A last cautionary note: between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries the word "humanism" has been used in a great variety of ways. Somebody needs to write a history of "humanism" and to get really clear about just what version of religious humanism we are commending, and why.